Mountain running: the words themselves can spark a sense of awe in many people, but even most runners don’t fully understand what a mountain run is.
If the idea of running – and particularly racing – across big elevation changes, and running across screes and mountaintops appeals . . . mountain running may be for you.
In this post, we’ll look at:
- What the definition of mountain running is,
- The differences between trail running and mountain running,
- The types of mountain racing you’re likely to encounter,
- Tips for how to start mountain running, and picking a run or race,
- Safety tips and things to remember before hitting those mountains!
Let’s jump in!
What Is Mountain Running?
At its core, a mountain run is any run or race that includes significant elevation gain.
Many of these runs or races take place on the trail but not all trail runs are mountain runs and not all mountain runs are on trails!
Take, for example, the notorious Mount Washington Road Race in New Hampshire. While the 7.6 mile race is run entirely on the road, the 4,650 feet of elevation gain and extreme weather make this very different from your typical 8 mile road race.
Falling under the broad category of mountain running are different subcategories.
Distances range from short and steep (such as a vertical kilometer race) to very long with multiple climbs (such as in a 200+ mile ultramarathon) but they all involve significant climbing and most promise hard-won views.
Types of mountain races you may come across include:
Vertical Kilometer: while the exact distance of a vertical kilometer (VK) race can vary (not to exceed 5km), the elevation gain (1000 meters) does not.
Other official rules from the International Skyrunning Federation (ISF) include a minimal average incline of 20% with some sections exceeding 33%.
Vertical Mile: Similar in format to a VK, the vertical mile format is not regulated by ISF in the same way. Regardless, a quick internet search will reveal a handful of vertical mile races.
Generally ranging in length from 15-20 miles, a vertical mile race will always include close to 5,280 feet of elevation gain.
Skyrunning races: Defined by ISF as “running in the mountains above 2,000m altitude where the climbing difficulty does not exceed II° grade and the incline is over 30%.”
Skyrunning races are quickly growing in popularity. You can read more about Skyrunning here.
Mountain Races: Beyond official Skyrunning races, many races of all distances can qualify as mountain running, and mountain running is a great way to enjoy an amazing adventure with friends. Read more as we discuss how to become a mountain runner!
How To Start Mountain Running
So you want to be a mountain runner?
It’s (almost) as easy as finding a mountain and running up it!
However, before you head out you will want to take some things into consideration:
- Picking a good trail
- Having the proper gear
- How to Run Uphill
Let’s take each of these one at a time . . .
How to Pick the Perfect Mountain Running Route
If you’re new to mountain running, or looking for new areas to explore, picking the perfect mountain run can be a daunting task.
The best way to get trail beta is from word of mouth.
Even better, find an experienced mountain running friend who is willing to show you a new area.
If you don’t have connections to local mountain runners try a local running or outdoor store or look for information, including trail reviews, online.
If you’re using the internet for trail information it’s important to know how reliable your sources of information are. I recommend collecting information from numerous sources.
There are multiple apps to help runners find great trails:
AllTrails allows users to leave reviews and will tag trails where “trail running” has been mentioned.
Trail Run Project is another app and website that allows runners to add their favorite running routes and rate their difficulty for other users to access.
Mountain Run Route Stats To Consider:
When looking for the perfect mountain run there are a few things you will want to take into consideration.
- Distance/Elevation. Remember that mountain runs can take you 2-3 times as long to complete as a road or flat trail run of similar distance, and adjust your plans accordingly.
- Reward. You want all your hard effort to be rewarded so make your goal something to look forward to.
A summit with a 360° view, a refreshing mountain lake or a field of wildflowers are all good motivators for pushing yourself up a steep trail.
- Technicality. Some trails are more technically difficult than others.
Some of this will depend on what region of the world you live in, and some just depends on the trails. Mountain trails tend to have less maintenance than state park or city trails.
Be sure that your ability matches the trails technicality, and remember that more technical trails will make your run longer than smooth trails.
- Looped, out and back or point to point. This comes down to personal preference, and the trail system where you will be running.
A looped or point to point run allows you to see new terrain throughout your run, while an out and back route gives you the security of running down terrain you’ve already experienced.
A point to point run will also require that you leave a car at the end or have a way to get back to your car at the beginning so be sure to take that into consideration when plotting your route.
How To Pack For A Mountain Run (i.e. An Adventure!)
Now that you’ve picked your perfect route, you need to consider what gear you will bring with you.
The distance, time you expect to spend on the trail, and weather, will all be taken into consideration when planning your gear.
As mentioned previously, you should expect a mountain run to take you two to three times as long as a road run of similar distance.
The time will depend on elevation gain and terrain and you should plan your gear and nutrition accordingly. It can be helpful to think about mountain running in terms of time instead of distance.
For example, if a six-mile run usually takes you a little less than an hour on the road, but will likely take you about two hours in the mountains, it would be more helpful to think about how much fuel and water you generally consume on a 12-mile road run.
When dressing for any mountain adventure, layers will be your best friend.
Temperature can shift dramatically with just a few hundred feet of altitude change, and exposed ridgelines are prone to wind and microburst storms.
Avoid cotton, which will stay wet and can make you cold quickly.
Stick to technical fabrics like polyester (which will dry quickly) and wool (which will help you stay warm, even when it is wet).
Some runners like running with lightweight trekking poles, and some prefer to run without.
On steep terrain, they can help you engage your upper body and provide extra balance on technical descents. Look for hiking poles that are lightweight and fold up small so you can stash them in your running vest when you’re not using them.
Finally, how do you carry all this gear?!
A lightweight running vest is the top choice for most mountain runners.
Head to your local running store to try on different models, and read reviews online.
There are lots of great hydration vest options, and you want to find one that feels comfortable on your body. They also come in a range of capacities, from just enough for a couple of bottles of water and some snacks, up to enough capacity for multi-day running adventures.
If you plan on expanding your mountain running adventures to anything longer than a few hours, or in colder seasons, you will want at least 12L of capacity in your hydration vest, and the ability for it to carry a water bladder.
Running Uphill: An Uphill Battle
Yes, running uphill is not easy!
The secret to a successful mountain run is… walking!
That’s right, almost any mountain runner you talk to will tell you “go slow to go fast!”
Running up steep inclines will use a lot more energy than power-hiking at the same pace.
You can find research articles online attempting to predict the exact pace or grade to switch, but for most mountain runners, you should switch to walking when your body tells you it’s time to switch.
Sometimes in the mountains, this can mean a few steps of running followed by a few steps of walking and so on.
Mountain Running Safety: 4 Things To Prepare
Running in the mountains can take you to some amazingly beautiful and remote places but being remote also means you can’t depend on other people to help you in an emergency situation.
Before you head out for a mountain run it is important to assess your ability to care for yourself in various scenarios.
#1: Check the weather forecast.
Mountain weather can be wild and unpredictable, and learning mountain weather patterns can take years of experience.
However, modern technology can help. Use resources such as mountain-forecast.com to get an accurate weather forecast for the elevation you will be running at.
Remember that even with modern forecasting tools, mountain weather can be unpredictable so be prepared for sudden changes with appropriate layers.
#2: Bring a friend!
Not only can it be more fun to experience new places with a friend, running with someone else also offers another level of safety should something happen while you’re out on the trail.
#3: Have basic first aid supplies and know how to use them.
A small first aid kit will only cost you a few ounces in your pack, and combined with proper training could help with everything from annoying blisters to broken bones.
Consider taking a weekend-long wilderness first aid course as well.
Phone and GPS technology is wonderful but it shouldn’t be your only resource for navigation in the mountains.
Service for both can be unreliable, and cold weather can kill electronic batteries quickly. Buy a good-quality map for the area you plan to run in and know how to use it.
Mountain running is an incredible way to experience nature and freshen up your running routine.
Start off with a mix of hiking and running and before long you will find yourself planning all kinds of adventures!
Don’t forget to stop and smell the flowers, or enjoy the views, on your runs.